Coronavirus restrictions threaten democracy, global leaders warn

Measures to stem the pandemic threaten human and political rights, open letter by more than 500 signatories warns.

Demonstration to demand for change in the constitution on the 88th anniversary of a revolt that ended absolute monarchy in Bangkok
A pro-democracy activist confronts a police officer during a demonstration to demand change in the constitution in Bangkok, Thailand [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

More than 500 political and civil society leaders, Nobel laureates and rights groups have warned that some governments are using the coronavirus pandemic to “tighten their grip on power”, undermining democracy and civil liberties.

In an open letter on Thursday, signed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, actor Richard Gere and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Shirin Ebadi, Lech Walesa and Jose Ramos-Horta among others, the authors said the measures introduced to stem the spread of the virus pose a threat to human and political rights.

“The current pandemic represents a formidable global challenge to democracy,” the letter said.

“Authoritarians around the world see the COVID-19 crisis as a new political battleground in their fight to stigmatise democracy as feeble and reverse its dramatic gains of the past few decades.

“Even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers that restrict human rights and enhance state surveillance without regard to legal constraints, parliamentary oversight or timeframes for the restoration of constitutional order,” the authors asserted.

The letter – the aim of which is to raise “awareness and mobilise citizens” – was initiated by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, former presidents including Latvia’s Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano, and former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt were among those who signed the letter.

Nearly 70 pro-democracy institutions also supported it. 

A number of countries have launched government-mandated mobile apps to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, but rights groups and digital rights experts have raised concerns about privacy and increased centralised surveillance.

Lockdown restrictions have also led to a “horrifying global surge” in domestic violence and threatened human rights, according to the United Nations. 

The open letter said: “The COVID-19 crisis is an alarming wake-up call, an urgent warning that the freedoms we cherish are at risk and that we must not take them for granted.”

The coronavirus pandemic has spread to 188 countries on six continents. As of Thursday, at least 9.4 million people were infected and more than 482,000 killed.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies